Film festival attractions fit and don’t fit norms
“Americanish” is a new independent film that uses the lens of conventional and romantic dreams to explore the lives of Muslim-American women. The film is one of the featured attractions of the Portland Film Festival, now showing.
Film festivals are often a study in contrasts, a way station for films that don’t fit conventional Hollywood programming norms. I would point to two worthy examples this week at the Portland Film Festival—a romantic comedy and a documentary—that fit and don’t fit in interesting ways.
One doesn’t necessarily expect to see a rom-com at a film festival—Hollywood churns them out almost weekly, and one doesn’t think of these funny love stories as the stuff of independent cinema that must work for its audience.
“Americanish” is a rom-com; it mines that familiar territory, where everyone gets what they want by a predictably gently rocky route with struggles that are predictable, conventional, and navigable. But in this case, the struggles are those of Muslim-American women, and the film is written and directed by Muslim-American women.
Iman K. Kawahry, directing her first feature film, has long been acutely aware of the lack of hijabi female filmmakers in America, and the paucity of films featuring stories of Muslim women. Having grown up in the Florida panhandle consuming films and television “as predictable and mundane as the geography around [her],” as she recently wrote in The Wrap, her longing grew to fill those gaps in representation.
Then, on a trip to New York, she saw the one-woman play “Dirty Paki Lingerie” by Pakistani American comedian Aizzah Fatima, and Kawahry’s dream of creating a feel-good film about Muslim women merged with Fatima’s exploration of six Muslim characters. The two wrote “Americanish,” which, like Fatima’s play, lightly opens up the limited view that most people have of Muslim women’s experience and perspective.
Fatima stars as Sam, who lives with her mother Khala (Lillete Dubey) and her hijabi younger sister Maryam (a charming Salena Qureshi), who dreams of training as a pediatrician at Harvard and of romance with her dreamboat MCAT study mate. Sam is cynical about romance and focused on fighting for independence and a career as a political consultant. Meanwhile, their cousin Ameera (Shenaz Treasury, popular in Hindi cinema and the American soap, “One Life to Live”) has arrived with a comic determination to find herself a Pakistani doctor to marry. And Khala, who married for love and then was abandoned, has her own ideas about what the American dreams of her daughters and niece should be.
I’ll acknowledge that I’m not a fan of rom-coms myself; as typically practiced, the formula tells predictable lies about romantic love that usually strike me as only slightly entertaining at best. But the use of the genre here is canny—Kawahry and Aizzah are using the lens of convention and romantic dreams to open our eyes to the fantasies and struggles of Muslim women, via a vehicle that we are primed not to resist. What the film lacks in depth it makes up for in the quality of its intentions; the creators succeed in awakening in outsiders appropriate curiosity and delight in the experience and perspectives of Muslim women—and, I imagine, in stirring amused recognition in insiders whose experience is rarely centered on screen. What better use of convention than to break convention?
“When Claude Got Shot” seeks to illuminate by an entirely different route. It follows Claude Motley, a middle-aged Black law student who becomes a victim of gun violence during a carjacking on a return visit to his hometown of Milwaukee, Wisc. for a high school reunion. Two days later after Claude survives being shot in the jaw, his assailant, a Black teenager named Nathan, is paralyzed from the waist down when Victoria, a Black nursing student he is assaulting, shoots him in self-defense.
Spoiler alert: this won’t turn into a feel-good story of redemption, nor will it leave you with a clear idea of what justice should look like or of why 15-year-old Nathan’s choices took such a hard turn and what punishment or redemption is possible for him. The questions this story raises are too big for that, and this film, appropriately, wants to open them and not necessarily to answer them. It invites viewers to follow Claude’s journey of recovery, through several surgeries, mounting medical debt, and incalculable psychological damage, which among other things jangle the assurance with which he has been traversing a path to a legal career.
We glimpse the harm to his three children, including his own teenage son, and the way he and his wife Kim, herself a strong-willed attorney, struggle with the idea of a just punishment for a child with whom they identify but who also has blown a hole through the stable life they have fought to maintain.
Meanwhile, Victoria struggles to make sense of an action that she took in a moment of danger in front of the house she shares with her husband and children, and to discern what sort of safety and security are accessible to her and her family. She bristles at a public narrative about her actions that casts her as a hero when the truth feels more complicated. And in court proceedings where (aside from Kim, who appears as an advocate for Claude and Victoria) white judges and attorneys have the most agency for asking questions and making decisions, Nathan appears mostly implacable, and Claude and Victoria are asked to speak to their perspective on what should happen, and increasingly find themselves dissatisfied with the answers.
All these events occur in one of America’s most segregated cities, which has become no safer after decades of incarcerating Black men at a wildly disproportionate rate. The film seeks to look beneath casual (and harmful) narratives about “Black-on-Black crime” to find the deeper questions about how decades of segregation and racism are impacting the relationships between Black people and their prospects for a stable life. It does so mostly by allowing them to speak and struggle on camera, which is an act of generosity that most of us outside the Black community don’t actually deserve, and of which especially those of us in the legal community would do well to avail ourselves. We won’t be entertained, but the film may leave us with a very appropriate sense of unease.
Darleen Ortega is a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the first woman of color to serve in that capacity. Her movie and theater review column Opinionated Judge appears regularly in The Portland Observer. Find her review blog at opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com.